Fast and the Furious, The (2001): Rob Cohen’s Thrilling B-Level Actioner, Where Speeding Cars More Important than Characters

Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious is a thrilling B-movie, elevated considerably by A-level stunt work and roaring/flying cars that overcome narrative shortcomings.

Superficially inspired by Rebel Without a Cause‘s mixed-up youth melodrama, but closer in spirit to Gone in 60 Seconds (the 1974 version, not the remake), the movie features a handsome teen heartthrob (played by Paul Walker) as an undercover cop who’s investigating a drag-racing street posse that zooms through the streets of L.A. at a simulated speed of 170-mph.

Producer Neal H. Moritz’s previous efforts (Cruel Intentions, I Know What You Did Last Summer) have been reliable barometers for what interests young audiences.  The new yarn unfolds as a romantic morality tale, should prove to be a hot date picture for young viewers.

Among many effects, the immensely successful James Dean starrer Rebel Without a Cause bred two sub-genres, both cashing in on the rapidly emerging American youth subculture: The wild youth film and the mixed-up youth film. The former cycle produced such schlock movies as Crime in the Streets, Untamed Youth, and Juvenile Jungle, whereas the latter led to a dozen “car pictures,” including Hot Red Girl, Dragstrip Girl, Hot Car Girl, and Dragstrip Riot, all made between 1956 and 1958.

Fast and Furious is very much an attempt to revive those movies, which were quickies made on minuscule budgets. Made on a much bigger scale and budget, the new movie flaunts spectacular chase scenes and special effects, orchestrated by the best pros in the business.  Craig Lieberman, head of the National Import Racing Association (NIRA) and RJ De Vera, a legendary street racer, served as on-set car consultants.

The plot, such as it is, is minor, though I expect that in the long run The Fast and the Furious should register in at least two significant ways.

First, it is reportedly the first picture to present the adrenaline-charged world of import street racing, a subculture with its own rituals, values, dress code, and lingo.

Second, the movie tries to boost the careers of Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez, in her first appearance after her stunning debut in last year’s highly-acclaimed indie, Girl Fight, which shared the top award at the Sundance Film Fest.

Based on Ken Li’s article for Vibe magazine, The Fast and the Furious, written by Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist, and David Ayer, is basically a modern Western.  Replacing horses with cars (or rather horsepower), the script takes the genre’s classic elements and conflicts–male camaraderie, loyalty, betrayal, freedom–and recreate them in a contemporary urban milieu, L.A., the heart of street racing and American car culture in general.

Vin Diesel again shows, after his turn in Pitch Black, that he’s cut to be an action hero; his very name almost calls for it.  As Dominic Toretto, the charismatic anti-hero, Diesel drives the streets of L.A. as if he owns them.  Dom spends his days putting wrench-time into high-performance racing cars–the specific model and year are far less important than the computer-controlled fuel injection that makes them fly.  On a good night, when a rival has the nerve to challenge him, Dom can pocket up to $10,000 a ride. He struts through the outlaw scene like a rock star presiding over a hungry roar of fans.

Dom is contrasted with an appealing if blandly-named hero, Brian O’Conner (Walker), who prides himself on street smart, but is perceived by everyone else as  vanilla–white bread.   Brian seeks Dom’s approval behind the wheels of his own NOS-injected muscle machine.  Hooked, and easily excitable, Brian is ready to test his limits. No one knows that Brian is an undercover cop investigating a series of big-rig hijackings, which the police and Fbi need to stop or else the truckers will take matters into their own hands.

After an encounter with ruthless Johnny Tran (Rick Yune), Dom decides that Brian is “all right,” though despite his protests, his sister Mia (Brewster) falls for Brian; neither is aware of his double identity.

The cops know that the cash flowing freely through the street-racing scene is “dirty,” which soon makes both Dom and Johnny suspect. The rivalry between Dom’s and Johnny’s crews escalates to a dangerous level, forcing Brian to make decisions about his very loyalty.

The big races are shot by lenser Ericson Core as a spectacular street theater, tribal gatherings or even battlefields fuelled by adrenaline, out-of-control speed, and tension that’s both racial and sexual. The nocturnal street competitions are outside the boundaries of the law, which, of course, makes them more seductive for the young. In its few convincing moments, Fast and Furious does give a glimpse of the alluring power of a unique multi-racial subculture, manifest in late-night races on the industrial outskirts of L.A., and spreading via magazines and websites all over the world.

Functioning as both hobby and a lifestyle, this world has invented its own parlance. The cars are known as “rice rockets,” alluding to their Asian roots (mostly from Japan), which are reassembled and souped up with mechanical precision by devoted owners, who spend a lot of money customizing their engines and detailing their bodies.

However, more than anything else, director Cohen (The Skulls) shows determination to push the limits of technology. Hence, for the racing scenes, he has fashioned a rig that allows the actors to sit in the speeding car (rather than just be towed by the crew). Some of the visceral excitement derives from the illusory trick of putting the viewers in the drivers’ seats of cars that look both familiar and extraordinary.

The acting is undistinguished, though it would be unfair to put the blame on the cast, which has to compete with sexy, high-speed cars, and also overcome the deficiencies of dialogue that consists of one liners and simplistic cliches.

The Fast and Furious is effective in continuing to mythologize the role of speedy and sexy cars in American culture not so much as symbols of status or conspicuous consumption, but as symbols of freedom, mobility, and the kind of virile energy cherished now-a-days by teenagers all over the world.